In Dublin, I met a reader of this blog, and we got to talking. But we didn’t have long enough to converse. Based on that conversation, I invited him to write something for this blog laying out his critique of The Benedict Option. He just sent it to me. The reader writes:
By way of background, I’m an Irish Catholic myself but I have family and a large number of friends in the USA and I am familiar with people who have been part of some of the communities mentioned in The Benedict Option and similar communities in the US and Europe, particularly but not exclusively Catholic communities. I want to raise a number of constructive critiques of the Benedict Option, but first lay out briefly why I think that Rod’s general thesis in The Benedict Option is correct.
First of all, if we want to reach out and make converts in the world, we need somewhere to bring them to so that they can experience what Christianity is meant to be like. When I hear that a friend is starting to become more open to religion, the first question that comes to my mind is: do I have a community I can bring them to where they can see what it’s like to live as a Christian? The witness of example is far more powerful in most cases than the witness of an apologetic argument as to why x or y doctrine is true, and that witness is only possible when we build strong Christian communities.
Secondly, unless we are already incredibly holy, those of us who are already practising as Christians need the support of others to persevere in the faith. I’ll give an example. I went out canvassing door-to-door during our recent abortion referendum in Ireland, trying to advocate for a pro-life vote. On the feast of Pentecost, I felt particularly intimidated going to speak to strangers who might strongly disagree with me. It occurred to me that the environment in my workplace and college felt more real to me than the promise of Jesus that He would send His Spirit among us. I realised then how much I needed the presence of other practising Catholics and the practices of my faith in order to become more convinced of the truth of Pentecost, and less convinced that the opinion of the world mattered. We need strong communities so that we have the strength to evangelise the world, and not be evangelised by the world.
Finally, I think that we in the Church have become too focused on politics and culture war issues, and not focused enough on holiness, which I would define as “loving the Lord my God with all my heart, mind and will, and loving my neighbour as I love myself.” I think that the core of Rod’s book isn’t the argument about how the Enlightenment brought us to this point, or the bits about politics and sexuality and technology, but rather the chapter on the practices of the Benedictines, where Rod lays out principles drawn from the Rule of St. Benedict, principles which are meant to help us grow in holiness as a community.
So having laid out why I think we need the Benedict Option, I’d like to lay out three critiques of many of the communities I’ve come across which are striving for this ideal. I’m not laying these out to attack these communities, but rather because these issues can sabotage their mission and make them toxic, unwelcoming, or counterproductive.
My first critique is about economics. In my experience many intentional Christian communities eventually get torn apart by economic forces that they can’t control. I know of one intentional Christian community in Dublin where skyrocketing housing prices mean that houses which were cheap when the community was founded circa 1990 are now unaffordable to a single-income family. This ultimately means that such communities are only accessible for rich Christians. Another example might be the community which Rod himself was part of in Louisiana, where the healthcare costs of their Orthodox priest’s family meant that he had to take another job elsewhere and the missionary church couldn’t survive there.
It’s difficult for us to do very much about the vast economic forces at play on the global stage, influencing property prices and the cost of healthcare. But it’s a factor that needs to be considered by any community hoping to build in a particular geographic area. Perhaps those of us who are better off need to be more generous with their wealth in order to make such communities work. Of course, it can be problematic to have a community which stands or falls at the whims of one or two wealthy donors. Some people will argue that one should move to where it is less expensive to live; in Ireland, at least, this is extremely difficult. Almost all available jobs are in the capital. We need to learn to adapt to survive in a modern society which does not consider raising families an important part of the common good.
My second critique is about litmus tests. Too many Catholic communities I have known which have tried to live apart from the world take on very strange litmus tests, things which they will excommunicate other members of the community for not adhering to. What often happens is that certain very strong personalities or big egos in a community come to impose their own idiosyncratic views on the other members of the community, if there is no natural leader (such as a good local priest or spiritual director). Many of those who are not very formed in their own faith are easily swayed, as they won’t necessarily have learned what is and isn’t central to Christian doctrine. Anyone who disagrees or raises their children differently is criticised or shunned. So, for example, I have come across Christian groups where the following things have been frowned upon and treated as almost sinful:
· Letting your kids watch Star Wars
· Vaccinating your kids
· Having a non-traditional hairstyle (e.g., having an afro, or women dying their hair purple)
· Being sceptical about certain private revelations (e.g. being sceptical of Medjugorge)
· Being sceptical about certain conspiracy theories (e.g. Masonic conspiracies, Jewish conspiracies)
· Being supportive of the European Union
· Criticising Trump
· Preferring the Novus Ordo Mass to the Tridentine Rite
My theory is that once a person decides to reject the mainstream culture, it becomes difficult to discern which non-mainstream views are crazy and which are common sense. In the absence of a strong spiritual authority, certain strong personalities appoint themselves gatekeepers of orthodoxy and they give their own preferences or prudential decisions the same weight of importance as actual doctrine. So it’s not enough to be pro-life; you have to support Trump, and Brexit, and Justice Kavanaugh etc etc. There’s no room for disagreement. Everyone else in the community follows the strong personalities, or else they vocally disagree and there’s a split in the community.
So in building community, we need to figure out how to get the boundaries right, figure out what’s a non-negotiable belief and what is a prudential matter that we can disagree upon; otherwise these debates tear apart a community or turn us into the crazies the world thinks we are.
My third critique is that these communities often fail to transmit the faith to their children; instead of succeeding in passing on the faith to the next generation, the children become two-faced, pretending to be good Christians when they are with parents or authority figures in the community but when left to their own devices they just go with the cultural flow.
For example, a friend of mine who attended a well-known conservative Catholic university in the US told the story of certain people who were given awards by the university for being outstanding members of the community, but these same people were sleeping around, into heavy drinking etc. They weren’t good Catholics; they were merely very good actors, and learned how to fool their authority figures in the university. I have heard similar stories elsewhere. The problem seems to be especially bad when parents are too strict or harsh, or obsessed about the litmus tests I referred to above.
I think that the biggest part of this is that parents are often too afraid of the world, too afraid to address the world with their kids, shutting everything out. Once the kid grows up and leaves the Catholic bubble, they’re like a person who’s lived in a sanitised environment all their lives; they succumb to all the diseases they never built up a resistance to. They need instead to be exposed to the world enough that they can understand the difference between Christianity and what the world offers; then they can actually choose Christianity in freedom, rather than being in the dark.
This requires an open dialogue and trust between parents and children, where parents are honest with their children about the temptations and risks they will face and try to talk these things through as equals, rather than imposing poorly-understood rules and thinking that that’s enough. It’s not enough to just enforce a load of rules; you need to try to explain good and evil and explain why the good is worth striving towards. If kids don’t trust their parents enough to talk these issues over with them, then when they encounter temptations in the world, they’re not going to see their parents as sources of wisdom about these issues but rather as naïve idiots who have nothing of value to say, and they start to live double lives.
As I said above, I’m not raising these issues to knock the idea of the Benedict Option. But in almost every Catholic community I have come across, one or more of the above issues has reared its ugly head and it threatens the whole mission of the community. So my question is: how do we avoid these problems? How do we deal with them?
I thank the reader for these excellent comments, which are an extension of the things we talked about in Dublin. All of this rings true to me. I should say, though, that the health care costs problem for my former priest was not what ended our mission. It was that one family dropped out, and we could no longer afford to pay the priest. After three years, we still hadn’t won enough converts to withstand the loss of a family, so that was a pretty good sign that the mission didn’t have a future. Still, Father having to get a job would not have helped matters, and the Dublin reader’s point stands.
He also makes me think of the problem faced by the Orthodox Christians in Eagle River, Alaska. The founding generation of that community moved out to Eagle River when land was cheap and plentiful. But so much growth around Anchorage happened over the past 30 years that now land in the community is neither cheap nor plentiful. One thing that they loved about the community — the fact that everybody lived within walking distance of the cathedral and each other — was no longer possible for everyone, through no fault of their own.
About the unnecessary weirdness factor, that’s present for sure. Around 2002, when my wife and I were still Catholic, we were thinking of leaving New York City and moving to a community that had the reputation for being home to a number of orthodox Catholics. Someone we knew there warned us against it. What?! We were really surprised. Our friend told us that this place used to be fine, but zealots moved in, and have made it rigid and oppressive. For example, said the friend, there are lots of people here who would shun you if you have daughters, and you let them wear pants.
We had no daughters at that point, but we did not go to that community. Later, when I was researching The Benedict Option, I ran across someone who had grown up in that community. This person was an atheist by that point, and blamed their paranoid and controlling parents, and their parents’ friends, for making them hate religion.
About transmitting the faith and preventing kids from living double lives, that’s something I think about a lot with respect to my own kids. I was not raised in a particularly religious household, but I learned at a young age that there were things my parents preferred to believe about their children, and that I would be better off not talking to them about things that did not fit their preferred narrative. I didn’t want to be deceptive, but I knew that if I brought up with them anything that was the least bit outside their worldview, it would make them anxious and maybe even angry. So I learned to keep a lot to myself, sometimes destructively. I rarely went to either of my parents for advice on anything personal, because I knew what they believed, and more important, how they believed it. My dad took disagreeing with him on anything as a sign of personal disloyalty. I learned to give them the face they wanted, and found other adults as mentors.
To be sure, my dad and mom weren’t bad people; it’s just that they had a certain set of expectations, and gave me the impression that they preferred the appearance of conformity to the real thing. This had nothing to do with their religious faith; religion was mild to non-existent in our household. It rather had to do with their strong and instinctive sense of order, and that a Good Kid in their family conformed to that order. To struggle with that order was not acceptable. My sister was far, far more accepting of that order than I was, but even she learned to live a double life as a teenager and young woman, not out of a desire to deceive them, but because she loved them so much she didn’t want to disappoint them. In both cases, though, neither of us believed we could be fully open with our folks about our opinions and struggles. I think that was a generational thing, mostly, but I concede that some faithful Christian families today, of my generation, set their own kids up for that kind of thing.
I have worked very hard since my kids were little not to be that kind of dad, and to tell them, openly, that there is nothing they could do or be that would separate them from the love of their father. I have done my best to teach them right from wrong, as best I know how, and more than that, to model it for them. But I have also worked hard, as has their mother, to enter into their lives and know who they are, not for the sake of manipulating them, but because we really do love them, and want to help them be who God made them to be, as distinct from who we would like them to be. I am not willing to have a discussion on this blog about my children (so don’t try that in the comments), but I do want to say that my own double-life childhood taught me what not to do. I think parents who fall all over themselves to be their children’s best friend make a serious mistake. But I also think it’s wrong for parents to confine themselves to rigid roles, and to make their kids afraid to come to them with real problems and struggles.
Anyway, all of Dublin Reader’s points are solid, and I appreciate hearing from him. I welcome feedback from your readers. If you aren’t going to add something constructive to this discussion, consider not posting at all.